Mamluk Carpets

Egypt has produced many wonderful carpets over the years and the most collectible today are the Mamluk carpets. They were not just made in Egypt but also in Syria and Turkey – basically in all the areas that formed part of the Mamluk Sultanate from 1250 – 1517 AD. There are mainly two types of surviving Mamluk carpets: one has a centre medallion and the other a repeated medallion pattern in the inner field.

A brief history of the Mamluks: The Mamluks were a class of slave soldiers used by the Islamic rulers, something that was unique to their rule. This class of slaves were higher than other slave classes and were mostly made up of young boys sold by their families to be trained as soldiers. Due to their many years of training they became fierce and loyal to their owners and because of that were often awarded high positions in the armies and society. The Mamluk Dynasties originated due to political turmoil in Egypt and the Mamluks took over for a time to maintain the status quo. There were two Mamluk Dynasties, one being the Bahri Dynasty (comprising mostly people of Cuman-Kipchak Turkic origin) and the second being Burji Dynasty (comprising mostly people of Circassian origin), both initially originating from the Caucuses. The surviving Mamluk carpets are mostly from the second dynasty.

The first style of Mamluk carpets from Egypt featured significantly in Mediterranean commerce and appear in Venetian paintings as early as the sixteenth century. They are characterized by a central medallion surrounded by a variety of smaller geometric motifs, forming a kaleidoscopic appearance. The palette is limited to red, blue, green, and yellow tones. Documents first refer to Cairo as a center of carpet weaving in the last quarter of the fifteenth century, and production continued until the mid-sixteenth century, shortly after the 1517 Ottoman conquest of Egypt. (Photo courtesy of The MAK)

The second style of Mamluk carpets is the Damascus rug, often attributed to Damascus, Syria, in the 16th or 17th century in continuation of the rug art of the Mamlūk rulers of that land. The usual Damascus field pattern is a grid of small squares or rectangles (hence the European term chessboard carpets), each of which includes a hexagon or octagon filled with tiny radial motifs that surround a star interlace. Among the other field patterns that occur is a large one with several medallions. The material is thought to be goat hair throughout. These rugs, like the Mamluk and Ottoman carpets of Egypt, were made with the asymmetrical knot.

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